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Hundreds of new terms added to the Ethnographic Thesaurus

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This is a guest post by Catherine H. Kerst, an American Folklife Center cataloger who oversees the American Folklore Society Ethnographic Thesaurus.

In January 2016, a new version (2.2) of the American Folklore Society Ethnographic Thesaurus was posted to the Library of Congress’s linked data site. With this update, we added hundreds of subject terms, and enhanced many scope notes. We also added citations to authoritative sources clarifying terms that have specific meaning in ethnographic description, which may not be included in standard lists of subject headings.  The value of having this thesaurus available as linked data is that both humans and machines can make use of it.

The Ethnographic Thesaurus is a controlled vocabulary used to organize knowledge and describe archival materials for access and retrieval. In other words, it helps organize your stuff and find what you are looking for!

Natural vocabularies contain a lot of similar and overlapping words, such as sofa, couch, and settee. If you’re looking for pictures of sofas, it’s hard to know which word to search for. Controlled vocabularies provide preferred subject terms, as well as variant terms and hierarchical links to broader terms like “furniture.” All this can be very helpful when you’re adding descriptions to archival collections, and also when you’re searching the descriptions in an archive to try to find the items that interest you.

Outhouse, Ninety-Six Ranch (photo by Howard W. Marshall)
Outhouse, Ninety-Six Ranch (photo by Howard W. Marshall)

So, in describing the photo at right, from the American Folklife Center’s Paradise Valley Folklife Collection, the Ethnographic Thesaurus will suggest that you use the subject term, “outhouses.” If you have searched for “latrines” or “privies,” you will be directed to “outhouses,” which is listed as a narrower term for “outbuildings,” and is cross-referenced from both “bathrooms” and “toilets.”

The photo (below) from the Grabill Country Fair, submitted as part of Local Legacies, could be cataloged using the following terms from the Ethnographic Thesaurus: county fairs; eating contests; and fruit pies.

Blueberry pie-eating contest at Grabill Country Fair
Blueberry pie-eating contest at Grabill Country Fair

The Ethnographic Thesaurus can also help you find narrative and musical genres. Among The Lomax Kentucky Recordings recently placed online, there are a number of lining hymns. These include The Crucifixion of Christ, recorded on June 29, 1937 in Ashland, Kentucky, performed by Vincent Caldwell and a group of unidentified singers. In the Ethnographic Thesaurus, the term “lining out” can be found to describe this form of hymn singing. The scope note explains that “lining out” involves a “Performance of a hymn or psalm in which the leader reads or chants a line or two, and the congregation responds by singing the same words.”

There are a number of “bawdy songs” in the WPA California Folk Music Project, collected by Sidney Robertson Cowell during the late 1930s. A fine example of this is “The Keyhole in the Door,” sung by Pat Forde on December 27, 1938 in Central Valley, California. The Ethnographic Thesaurus lists “dirty songs,” “erotic songs,” and “obscene songs,” as variants to the preferred form of the term, “bawdy songs.” Further, as this song was a parlor song attributed to the 19th century American humorist and newspaperman, Eugene Field, one could also describe it with “parlor songs.” (For several of the dirtier songs, the singers asked that Cowell kindly put the needle down on the 12-inch acetate discs to begin recording, and then remove herself from the room–they were embarrassed to sing such songs for a woman!)

The Ethnographic Thesaurus can also be useful in describing topics and genres that come up in oral history interviews, allowing for a consistent term to be used for a variety of words that may approximate the meaning of that term or have variant spellings. For example, in the Center for Applied Linguistics Collection (AFC 1986/022), U.S. Senator Alben Barkley (1877-1956) speaks about his life growing up on a Kentucky farm and aspects of his political past in an interview by Maurice Crane. A whole range of subject terms can be found in the Ethnographic Thesaurus to describe the topics that he used to reminiscence about life in rural Kentucky. Among them, “hog calls,” “rural life,” “family folklore,” “naming conventions,” “legends,” “shoes (footwear),” “political humor,” and “political campaigns.

The Ethnographic Thesaurus is a valuable tool that needs constant maintenance and is, in essence, a living language resource. As such, it is similar to a natural language in that it needs to reflect current concepts and usage in ethnography, while at the same time providing a stable structure.  To remain vital, the Ethnographic Thesaurus should be maintained and altered as it grows to allow for new terms as well as appropriate changes to existing terms.  Thus—we need help from you. Please send in comments on thesaurus terms and send suggestions for new ones, with citations, if possible, to help keep this vocabulary alive and valuable for use.  On the Library’s linked data American Folklore Society Ethnographic Thesaurus site, there is an option to leave comments at the tab “Suggest Terminology.” If you fill out the form, it will generate a message that will help us keep the thesaurus current. Or, you can write to the Ethnographic Thesaurus staff with your suggestions and comments to: [email protected] We will be glad to hear from you! The Ethnographic Thesaurus was made possible in part by a grant from the Mellon Foundation.


  1. This is such a fabulous resource! I greatly appreciate all of the time and effort by all of those involved in building and maintaining this living vocabulary of ethnographic research and description.

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